Episode 118 – Tess Clarke & Arturo Coto, Perspectives on Immigration in America

This week we continue our series on the Art of Difficult Dialogue with two special guests, Tess Clarke and Arturo Coto. Besides being in senior leadership at Noonday Collection and the founder of XRoad Consulting, Arturo Coto’s story of how and why his family came to the U.S. illuminates the dire realities and hopeful possibilities that immigrant families face. And then to follow-up Arturo’s journey, Tess Clarke will share why she co-founded Seek the Peace, a community of peacemakers and advocates seeking the safety, peace, and flourishing of refugees and immigrants.


Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Thanks for sticking with me during this Art of Difficult Dialogue series. I know we’ve all been on a learning journey together, and really, learning how to hold tensions and embrace nuance has been one of my biggest lessons and that requires a lot of effort – and today’s conversation is no different. Today we are talking about immigration, but before we dive in with a policy expert, I wanted you to hear from someone who is, goodness, a very, very, very important person in my life: Arturo Coto. He hails from El Salvador and he works with me here at Noonday Collection on our executive team.

He’s been working with me at Noonday Collection since 2015 and has truly helped us to build and scale and create a culture, and he works with absolute passion and tenacity and creativity and he… I can’t imagine Noonday without him. Arturo is actually a political asylum refugee from El Salvador.

Also on our executive team is another woman who works with us who is an immigrant: Sheila Walker. We also have many, many refugees who work with us here at Noonday Collection. So, immigrants and refugees are very important people in my life. So, before we got into policy, I wanted you to just hear from a person. A person that is near and dear to Noonday. A person who has an incredible story and who I hope may humanize this issue for you. We’re going to start off by hearing from Arturo Coto. 


Arturo Coto: A First-Hand Perspective on Immigration in America

Jessica: I mean, we could do a whole podcast on what it’s like to be the youngest brother of five sisters.

Arturo: We could. That’s a whole story there.

Jessica: That’s like a whole ‘nother one. But I wanted to have you on today because we are talking about immigration today, which, to be completely frank with you, is not an issue that I’ve done huge deep dives in as far as policy. What I do know is half of our executive team are immigrants. You hail from El Salvador. Sheila Walker, she hails from the Philippines, immigrated when she was 10. We also have several refugees who work with us at Noonday on our fulfillment team from Burma and from Ethiopia. And I’m around many immigrants, refugees, and I have a long history, my whole life, of walking with people especially growing up in San Antonio. But today, I wanted to dive in after you share your story. We’re actually gonna dive in and talk with someone more about policy. But I wanted people to really hear from someone so that they have a story to go along with because I think oftentimes when we don’t humanize policy, it can become meaningless to us.

Arturo: I agree.

Jessica: So, thank you because you have such an incredible, incredible story. And we spent some time together a couple of weeks ago. You took us out on your boat, which is really fun.

Arturo: That was great.

Jessica: And you just shared your story. And Joe and I both walked away encouraged. Just encouraged by your story, your vulnerability and by the American Dream that you have kind of been able to live in. And so that’s what I wanted to talk about today. So, I wanted to start off, first of all, tell me about your family.

Arturo: I would love to. Both my parents are from El Salvador. They’re from rural El Salvador. So, my dad’s dad, my granddad, really was a prominent businessman in a small town in El Salvador, but he was also very promiscuous. So, my dad is one of many, many, many kids. And my mom is actually one out of 13 kids. So, very typical agrarian, you know, kind of large rural families. They both just had this passion for working their way out of the rural and going into the big city, the capital city of San Salvador.

My dad ended up going to med school and becoming a general practitioner, and then eventually becoming all of… getting involved with policy and government and becoming the Minister of Health for the country of El Salvador. And my mom became an educator. She was a teacher. And by the time that she got to the capital city, she was a principal at a public school. So, I would say from that kind of… just that drive was just so…  It’s something that, to this date, I admire so much about the people that could have easily just been agrarian and could have just stayed where they were, but they chose not to do that. Together they had myself, and I’ve got three sisters. My mom had this daughter previous to her marriage with my dad, so I have a half-sister. She’s the oldest.

And we literally had the dream life in San Salvador. We had a nice house, we lived in the skirts of a volcano, went to private schools. I used to think that my dad had, like, the coolest job because he drove a different car, or he had a driver drive a different car. Little did I know that it was because of his safety and it wasn’t by choice of just wanting to have different cars by the government. So, anyway, it really was, you know, what I recall in the early days of my childhood, it was wonderful. Semana Santa is what they call Holy Week and we’d get in the car and we’d go to the beach and spend a week there with a ton of friends. And yeah. It was the Salvadorian dream.

Jessica: And then you guys had to flee. What was going on in El Salvador at the time?

Arturo: Yeah. So, this is in the ’70s, mid to late ’70s where, you know, for one reason or another Central America, including El Salvador, became a part of the Cold War. And having those countries really in fight and being fueled by different aspects of larger governments wanted to have a presence in those countries. And there’s… The thing I’ve learned about Latin America is that there’s big social inequality, economic inequality. And so, it’s very easy to go after people that are poor and promise them a better life, arm them with weapons, and create a civil war and create civil unrest.

“The thing I’ve learned about Latin America is that there’s big social inequality, economic inequality. And so, it’s very easy to go after people that are poor and promise them a better life, arm them with weapons, and create a civil war and create civil unrest.” Arturo Coto

So, through all that, in El Salvador, there was a lot of civil unrest. They were called guerrillas that essentially lived in the outskirts of major cities and would come in and do terroristic things. And for us, how it showed up for me and my family, you know, my dad had been kidnapped a couple of times, and that’s why, essentially, he had to, like, have different cars so that he could not be predictable about, like, what he was driving and where he was at. There was a day that I recall my mom leaving for work with my sister, and as they’re pulling out of the driveway, two masked men came up with guns and got in the car with them. And we literally thought that was the last time we were gonna see them. But luckily, all they wanted was money. And my dad was able to recuperate them safe and sound.

Jessica: And you were six years old at the time?

Arturo: Yeah. This is when I’m six years old at the time. And the last thing that I would say that really put us over the edge was I attended a Catholic school, all-boys’ Catholic school. And one day it so happened that the guerrillas came in, and they would do this as a tactic. They would essentially take over a school of boys and then they would just take them away into the mountains to essentially train them to be the militia and the guerrillas. But yeah, one day they came in and they gathered all the kids in a courtyard. So, imagine just, like, you know, the school is like two stories and there’s a big courtyard in the middle.

And I recall, and it’s kind of nightmarish, but I’ve learned to like deal with this moment, them gathering all these kids and then they bring the cardinal, the head of the school, to the second-story balcony and they’re on a megaphone saying, "You are now part of the, you know, whatever," I can’t remember the name. "Whatever army. Follow our instructions or this is your destiny." And essentially, they murdered the cardinal right in front of all the kids by slicing his throat. And it was a shock. And then the next thing I know is me and my little best friend at the time just grabs my hand and I grabbed his and we started running because everybody starts running. And then the shooting starts, and they start shooting at kids. And then it’s a fog. It’s like I remember we got to one of the walls of the school and climbing through vines that grew on the wall, and then flipping over the wall. It’s like an eight-foot wall. And then just landing and I don’t remember anything else after that.

The story as my mom tells it is that she was at work and she heard it on the news and teachers came to her and said, "Your son’s school is being taken over." She dropped everything, ran to the school. And my mom is like one of the bravest women that you would ever meet. She’s tiny. She’s like, you know, five feet on a good day, but she’s powerful little thing. But she shows up and she tells this masked boy, you know, with a machine gun at the gates, is like, "My boy is in there. You get out of my way, you son of a bitch." And she just powers her way in. She can’t find anything. She sees several kids, you know, that are injured, and then she just got the instinct to go outside and just ran around the school and found me. And by that time, she had let my dad know. So, my dad said, "Whatever you do, just if you find him if he’s hurt, bring him to my hospital." So, anyway, yeah, I was passed out. She picked me up, took me there. And that was literally the last straw. For my parents, it was like we can’t continue to live this way.


Fleeing for Freedom

Jessica: Do you recall conversations in your home at this time because you’ve seen, at this point, your mom and sister get kidnapped, your dad’s been kidnapped, you have now witnessed a murder? I believe you told me once it was… they slit his throat, the cardinal.

Arturo: They did. They did right in front of us.

Jessica: You are running away from bullets. Can you remember conversations in your home at this time about, "We need to get out of here"?

Arturo: I don’t. And the way that my parents did it… We lived in fear. In our house, it got to the point where we all slept in my parents’ room. The kids were under the bed, essentially, because we would hear helicopters flying over all night long. The grocery store, so think about your local HEB neighborhood store. They put a bomb and just destroyed the grocery store down the street from our house. So, it was chaotic outside, right? And constant chaos. The way that they told us was that we were going on a vacation to go see my aunt that lived in New York. And she had gone to New York in the ’60s, left El Salvadorian, and had built a life there. And so, it was more of like, "Yay, we’re going to United States and we’re gonna get in the plane and we’re gonna go visit our aunt for a while." They didn’t tell us that we would not come back.

Jessica: But they knew.

Arturo: They knew. They knew that, you know, they had a game plan. The way that… And this is where I think I am one of the privileged immigrants because of the way that we were able to come here. My dad was able to get tourist visas to the United States which was just really difficult to get. And so, we came in as tourists. My mom could only bring $500 because we were only supposed to stay, like, for a week or something like that. As soon as we came to New York, she went to the immigration agency and requested political asylum that we could not go back because our lives were in danger. And she had enough proof. And we were granted political asylum to stay in the United States. And then we became permanent residents here and ultimately citizens, but yeah. So, yeah. For us, it was like they knew, but the kids did not know.

“I think I am one of the privileged immigrants because of the way that we were able to come here. My dad was able to get tourist visas to the United States which was just really difficult to get.” Arturo Coto

Jessica: So, you show up in New York, it’s you and your sisters, your dad stayed back.

Arturo: Yes. My dad had to stay back because he was in contract with the government for at least two more years under his current role, so he could not leave the country.

Jessica: So, it’s you, your sisters and your mom with $500…

Arturo: Yeah.

Jessica: …a suitcase.

Arturo: In New York City… Yeah, our suitcases.

Jessica: So, where do you even begin? You have an aunt, you got $500. How do you begin to build a life?

Arturo: Yeah. My mom was essentially trying to understand, like, could she get a job? What kind of job would it be? How much would it cost to get an apartment? And she just really didn’t see a path and she just saw this as a really dangerous city, which it was at the time. She’s like, "I’m gonna lose my kids. If I have to work all the time and my kids start, like, in this city, this is not an improvement from where we’re coming from." Luckily, my oldest daughter… I’m sorry. My oldest sister, my half-sister, she had come to United States as an exchange student to do her senior year of high school and she ended up staying in the United States and ended up getting married. And she did this in a little town in Nebraska in the panhandle on the west side. That’s called Dix, D-I-X, Nebraska. And so, in conversations… my mom in conversations with her would just tell her about how stressed she was about raising the kids in New York. She just said, "Just come here. Come here to this small town, I think everything is going to be a lot easier here." So, that invitation was made by my sister to my mom.

Jessica: And what is the population of Dix, Nebraska?

Arturo: At the time, it was a good 300 people.

Jessica: Three hundred people.

Arturo: Three hundred people.

Jessica: Your mom says, "We’re out of here. We are going to go to Dix, Nebraska." You show up in Dix, Nebraska. And I can imagine there aren’t a ton of people coming from your situation. And you guys still, your English is…

Arturo: Broken.

Jessica: How would you… Broken?

Arturo: Yeah. Yeah. We took English in El Salvador as part of our education, but it was, like, silly words like motorcycle, hello, food. It wasn’t conversational. So, it was very broken.

Jessica: So, you show up to the cornfields in a tiny town in Nebraska. How were you received by that community?

Arturo: It’s probably like the best memories of my life of how… And even now in my reflection of it, it’s just, like, we were so lucky just to end up there, that my sister ended up there. This little small town. They knew that we were coming. They knew that we were refugees. And my sister was actually really well-liked in school, like, you know, in the town. And so, we essentially got adopted by the town. When we arrived, one of the wealthiest families owned several trailer homes and they said, "You guys can have this trailer home, rent-free." The dealership, auto dealership in the neighboring town of Kimball heard about the story and said, "You can have this car." A Ford Galaxie. I remember a Ford Galaxie 500. He was like, "You will need a car. You can have this car." And then shortly after, you know, I would say it’s probably within days that we arrived at the school they did Welcome Coto Family events and they did a food and clothes drive. And we got so much food and so much clothes because winter, it’s November now. And the town just all showed up, showed up in that gym and just, like, welcomed us. It’s really incredible.
Starting Over and Moving On

Jessica: And then you grew up there. That’s where you live. So, what did your mom end up doing for a living? And then I wanna hear, do you feel like you ultimately integrated? Do you feel like you had to change yourself in order to be accepted? What was it like to actually spend your middle school and high school years in this tiny town in Nebraska?

Arturo: Yeah. So, my mom, as part of that whole welcoming, she got three jobs. And so, she took them all. She worked at a factory. And then she cleaned houses. And then she also worked at… I’m sorry. It was three jobs, but she had two houses that she cleaned, and she also did the factory job. So, she was literally, like, working all the time. In terms of acclamation, you know, I would say it’s different depending on how old you are. I think my older sisters probably, like, felt more difficulty where, you know, when you’re seven years old, everything was just so new and so beautiful, and I was just that guy. For the longest time I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel any different in Dix. I was just another kid, and nobody made me feel different. And I didn’t know the difference of it. And I was the one that learned English the fastest. So, I was also… I would accompany my mom to the bank, to the grocery store, like, anything to help translate. So, I also became really well connected to the town with the elders. And I spent… And I loved it. I loved it. And I used to hang out at the gas station all the time, like, you know, wipe windshields and fill up gas tanks and check tires. And I would just hang out with the elders there in the town. So, it was just great. Small town living and I… Yeah. I mean, we literally felt… we were welcomed so well and just did not feel like we were lesser then.

Jessica: And then what about your dad? When does he arrive?

Arturo: So, my dad ends up coming two years… Well, he visited once, like a year later. And it was great. It was wonderful. He came for Christmas and it was so much fun. And then I remember being at Denver Airport having to say goodbye and I couldn’t understand why he had to leave. It was just one of those things is like, "Why do you wanna leave us? Why don’t you stay?" I couldn’t understand it. So, eventually, he does come back when he’s off the contract and he permanently comes and lives with us. The thing about it for both my parents is, like, you know, it’d be like you and I just leaving the United States right now. Everything that we’ve worked for, our education, your business, whatever it is and you’re gonna leave it all behind and you’re going to go somewhere and you’re gonna start all over. So, both of these people that grew up in rural El Salvador and, you know, just worked so hard to establish themselves as professionals had to do it all over again.

“Everything that we’ve worked for, our education, your business, whatever it is, and you’re gonna leave it all behind and you’re going to go somewhere and you’re gonna start all over.” Arturo Coto

So, yeah, I remember working in the fields with my dad after he moved here. And in the summers in Nebraska, you work. If you’re, like, six, seven, eight years old and if you want some extra money, it’s expected that you get on the bus and you go shuck corn or you pull weeds and it doesn’t matter if you’re Hispanic or white or whatever. It’s like, that’s what you do. And so, my dad really became agricultural worker again. And I remember spending one summer with him and we were actually shoveling wheat and I remember him crying and I was just like, "Why are you… What’s the matter?" I was asking him, and he just said, "I just never thought that I’d be back here because I worked so hard to get out of this kind of situation."

Jessica: Wow.

Arturo: And then that was powerful, you know, just… And I didn’t… It wasn’t powerful to me at the time. It is powerful to me today. I have so much respect for that moment now. But ultimately, my dad ended up… He went to Denver, Colorado. He lived there and went back to school while we were still living in Nebraska and went back through a med program because he got partial credit from what he had done in El Salvador, but just… Eventually, he got a medical degree, and then also got a degree in Public Health, and then ended up getting a job  to start with the Nebraska State Health Department. And that’s how he worked his way back up. Similarly, my mom got her teaching degree and became a teacher and worked her way back up to her career. Essentially, rebuilt their careers in a foreign country, which I just think that’s incredible. I don’t know if I would have that kind of resilience.

Jessica: Wow. I think one reason I’m so encouraged by your story is I think oftentimes we think about these rural areas as anti-immigrants, especially in the last few years. That is sort of the general stereotype. And then here you are and that wasn’t your experience at all. What has the immigration conversation over the last few years? What has that meant to you? And how do you participate in those conversations?

Arturo: Yeah. It’s been difficult. And even on some social media channels, I’ve shared my story to try to reframe the stereotype of what an immigrant is because I think it’s come down to there’s a certain profile that anybody that’s an immigrant from a foreign country someway, somehow is doing something negative to the United States. And I don’t think that’s the case. And I know so many good people that are immigrants. The other thing I just wanna… I think I shared this with you –  people becoming an immigrant is not by choice. They don’t wake up one day and say, "I’m gonna leave everything behind today. I’m just gonna go to a different country and start over." Nobody, in their good mind, wants that. And they are essentially leaving for a reason and trying to do better for themselves and for their families and it’s a very courageous move.

“I’ve shared my story to try to reframe the stereotype of what an immigrant is. There’s a certain profile that anybody that’s an immigrant from a foreign country someway, somehow is doing something negative to the United States. And I don’t think that’s the case.” Arturo Coto

And I think what’s happened in the recent past has been that the stories that have been shared about immigrants is threatening, whether it’s, you’re taking away my job or you do bad things. And don’t get me wrong. There are bad… There are people that have immigrated and have done bad things. One of the things… And I’ll just jump real quick to this just because it informed my life where I thought, like, “immigrants are great and anybody can make it here.” We had a lot of family from El Salvador emigrate. And a lot of them went to California. And a lot of them ended up in Compton. And on my junior year, my dad took me on a road trip to go visit my cousins there because, he said, “I think you need perspective.” So, we ended up going to Compton and I met my cousins and they were all in gangs. And they were all in gangs because their parents worked 24/7 and the only family they had was the streets and with each other.

And it was just so different than what I grew up. I mean, all the houses had bar. The windows are boarded up and you feel insecure. And these kids are just tough. And that was so foreign to me. So, there are certain parts where I would say it’s like, yeah, you know, I can understand where in some scenarios, you know, immigrants are perceived to be a threat. But I think it’s also a condition of circumstance of, like, the parents have had to work. They made money instead of, like, raising kids. And this happens, I think, whether you’re an immigrant or not, right? You run that risk.

Jessica: What about looking back on your fellow Nebraskan friends? And what are your conversations like with them? And do you feel like the fact that they know you, does that bring them a different perspective than they maybe would not have had?

Arturo: Yeah. Of the ones that I’m connected through social media, I have been surprised by a couple in terms of how they perceive it, you know, and I just don’t know what’s happened in their life for them to have such a strong opinion against immigration. But the ones that I stay connected to, they’re just as endearing. Like, anytime I post my story about immigration or anything like that, there’s like, "I remember that. It was  so much fun. And it’s like, I just think immigrants are great and you are a great example." And so, life has happened. So, that I think has influenced your point of view. But I would say in small town in Nebraska, there’s still a pretty good presence of immigrants and I think that they just understand the value that these people bring all throughout Nebraska. They’re an important part of the economy. And so, yeah, yeah. For the small town, Nebraska I would say that for the most part, they still uphold the good value of just the state of Nebraska where it’s just good people and they try to do good for each other.

Jessica: Now we’re going to get to hear from Tess Clarke. Tess is the co-founder of Seek the Peace which is a community of peacemakers and advocates seeking the safety, peace, and flourishing of refugees and immigrants. She’s also the director of We Welcome Refugees which exists to empower the Christian church to be a key agent of hope and compassion in the Middle East refugee crisis. Here’s Tess.


Tess Clarke: An Advocate for Peace and Justice

Jessica: Well, welcome to the show, Tess. And I know that you are the co-founder of Seek the Peace and the director of We Welcome Refugees, which makes me realize that you have a heart for serving refugees and immigrants. So, I just want to know what led you to this point in your story to work so hard for that population in particular.

Tess: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I definitely have a heart for that population of people and I think because they’ve taken me in as their own and transformed my life and taught me so much about hospitality and so much about seeing God in ways that I just never imagined. I could see God because of their resilience and their stories and their faith journeys. And so, my husband and I lived in China for a little while way back in 2015, 2016. When we came home, we really missed being a part of an international community. We just found it was so exciting. We loved getting acquainted with a new culture and kind of a new way of life.

And so, we heard from some friends that there was a refugee community about 10 minutes from where we were living in Dallas and we were like, "What?" We didn’t know anything about refugees, but we were excited newlyweds – we jumped into this community. We ended up moving into the community shortly after that. We never intended to start a nonprofit, but as we began to come alongside people and say, "What do you need?" we kept hearing that a lot of the felt needs in the community were being met from, you know, there were food pantries and clothing closets and ESL classes, which were all great, but there was this really big gap in caring for people coming out of trauma.

And so, we started taking classes and learning about how to walk with people. Honestly, what we learned was just to be present and to be a listening ear. That there is no hero in that story, as we might have wanted, to come in and kind of help heal something. But really, we had to allow God the space to work, remove our hands, and just be with people. Be with people in their pain. And I think that’s where our lives were really transformed. And that’s where so much of my heart for this community was birthed and has remained so steady because I have real authentic relationships with people who have the refugee story, have the migrant story, have the asylum-seeker story.

“Honestly, what we learned was just to be present and to be a listening ear. We had to allow God the space to work, remove our hands, and just be with people. Be with people in their pain.” Tess Clarke

And so, in 2016 when some of the rhetoric around these people that I love started to come out as degrading and dehumanizing, I had to get involved in a larger way, which is when I started running We Welcome Refugees which was founded by Ann Voskamp. And where we kind of took that road to telling humanizing stories, to inviting Christians into welcoming the stranger. And what does it really mean to be hospitable? What does it really mean to welcome the foreigner into our lives as brothers and sisters? And so super passionate about it because I know that when people join this work, their lives will be transformed too.

Jessica: So, I know you have spent a lot of physical time actually on the border of Texas. It’s Texas and Mexico? Is that where you spent time?

Tess: Yes.

Jessica: Could you just take us there? Because we hear children in cages, we hear about parents being separated from children. And I’m a seven on the enneagram and I’m also just… I love America and I believe the best in humanity sometimes to the point where I hear that and I think, "No, that can’t be. That can’t be true," which just shows you blindspot privilege and all of those things that we’re all in a reckoning with right now on so many different fronts. So, could you take us to the border?

Tess: Yeah. And there’s lots of different kind of segments along the border as you can imagine from what’s happening to people who are coming to the border in Texas and Mexico and claiming asylum, which is a legal thing to do to come and then they’re under a policy called Remain in Mexico. People are having to stay in Mexico, which right now you almost have a refugee crisis on the border of Texas and Mexico…

Jessica: So, you have people that… Sorry, I just cut you off, but…

Tess: Yeah, fine.­­­­­

Jessica: We just heard from Arturo, very similar situation. He took a plane flight, six, seven years old, his country was in crisis, he shows up in America, he gets political asylum. So, you have people who I’m sure have come from Guatemala, El Salvador as well, Nicaragua maybe. And they have made their way all the way up to the border between Texas and Mexico and they are asking for political asylum. And that ­­­­is legal. But you just said there’s a stay-in-Mexico policy now?

Tess: Yes. And so it’s called the MPP policy, which basically, instead of putting people into our system when they come to claim asylum in the ways we have in the past, we’re basically giving them a ticket with a date to come back to the bridge, as you can imagine this huge bridge where you would walk across and cross into America to come and claim asylum. And so, people are waiting in Mexico, which is not a safe place to wait and living in makeshift camps, literally in tents within tarps with sticks cooking outside, no access to restrooms, showers. This is happening right here in Texas where you and I both live. I live in Dallas just a few hours away. And so that’s one of the situations happening on the border.

And then the other one is for the people who are in detention. So, for people who maybe got caught crossing illegally into the United States or for people who were, you know, maybe trekking along and were caught by someone in Border Patrol or for various reasons someone would be held in detention. And so that’s where we heard about people being held in what were called cages. And I’ve seen them with my own eyes and that is what they look like. Even the migrants actually call it the dog pound because it’s like the cages, they’re all kind of lined up next to each other with X amount of people inside each one of them. And you have that going on and it’s really cold in there as well. And so, it might be referred to as the icebox as well, some of the places where people are held even before they’re put in detention. And you have a backlog of thousands of people who are waiting to hear if their case will even be heard in the United States.

And so just to give a little background on that because that seems like, well, how could we handle that as a country? How… What are the systems in place? Typically, before the zero-tolerance policy, if you came to the United States to claim asylum, you would be interviewed, your case might be heard and a judge might say, "Okay. While we get more of the facts, you’re released to a friend or family member." A lot of people have someone that they’re connected to in the United States before they come. And they’re released to them with an ankle monitor and a court date. So, at that point, these people are no burden to America, we’re not spending any federal dollars to hold them like we are now at the border. And 99% of people show up for their court date.

So, there’s very little flight risk, there’s very little risk that these people will hide because they want to be here legally. They wanna be granted permission to work, live safely, enroll their children in school. I haven’t met an asylum seeker who would say that their goal was to sneak into the country. They want to be here. Just like Arturo came and claimed political asylum. They want that covering. And so, that was how this traditionally happened. So, people move through the system a lot quicker and were living with friends and family members. But we’re no longer allowing that to happen right now.


Humanizing Immigration Policies

Jessica: So, there is a massive debate in the U.S. regarding immigration. Can you explain what the debate is?

Tess: Well, I think so much of what you hear is if people will come the legal way, then they can stay. If people would do it the right way, if people will get in line, if they weren’t coming to try to change the core of America, if they would learn the language. I think that is the core of the debate is, is this gonna change who we are as a country? Right? You kind of have this tension between maybe what you would see as the left and the right, or the other thing I’ll hear about is, "Should we have open borders?" I think that’s kind of this word that send everybody into a little bit of a tailspin. But I would say in this work, no one’s advocating for open borders. People are advocating for secure borders, but a more human way to approach these borders. And so, that’s a lot of the immigration debate. And then it’s about who deserves to be here, which I think people are obviously gonna see that from all different kinds of viewpoints.

So, under the current administration, there have been 400 changes to immigration policy whether that’s under people seeking asylum, what does that law look like? What do they have access to? What is considered a credible fear? Why can someone claim asylum? There have been a lot of changes there to people who apply for work visas. I was in a meeting with the CEO of Boeing who, they manufacture airplanes. And she was saying it’s become increasingly difficult for them to get visas for some of the best and brightest minds from across the world who would have traditionally come and work for Boeing. She’s saying, "Hey, if we wanna make America great, we need to be able to give visas to some of the smartest people in the world so that they can come and help us in this industry, and all of these other industries." And so those changes are really across the board from people that have been really welcomed here traditionally to people who maybe have been looked down on in certain spaces and places.

And so, some of that debate is, well, who deserves a visa? And what does that look like to come the legal way? But when you’ve had 400 changes to the law, the legal way varies, right? There is no long line to get into. We have people, my neighbors across the street, have been living in the United States under working visas for 17 years and they have been in line to become citizens that long and they still don’t have a court date to do that. So, it’s very difficult. It’s a very difficult situation.

Jessica: Four hundred laws. I know. That makes me dizzy thinking about that. What is the path forward from a policy standpoint?

Tess: That’s such a great question. You have people on so many different sides of the aisle who are working on that. And everyone would say we need immigration reform. Some of the big paths forward even right now are looking at the people who have been living in the United States who have been contributing who were here under some kind of protection whether that be a working visa, whether that be under DACA, and saying, "Let’s create a path forward to citizenship for all of these people." That would be one of the big reforms that we could start now. Right? And that’s what all of us who are working in this are saying, "Let’s go ahead and get this moving for all of the people who are contributing, and then we need to look at all of these changes to asylum law, and there has to be an overhaul."

One of the big pushes from advocates is that instead of having Border Patrol interview all of the people coming in to claim asylum, we need to have more immigration judges, we need to have social workers at the border, we need to have people who have expertise in these fields actually doing this work. And that would be another overhaul where I think you could see a much more human approach to something that has really kind of been moved to, "Here’s a human being standing in front of me. The rhetoric is dehumanize them. It’s okay to put them in this cage or to send them back to Mexico."

One of the stories that I just recently heard yesterday from a friend who is representing a girl who came to the border. She was 15 years old. She came alone from El Salvador. Was turned away at the border to be held in Mexico and was kidnapped by the cartel in Mexico. A 15-year-old girl. We can imagine what happened to her. Finally got back to the border after escaping her kidnappers and got into a shelter where she was connected to an immigration attorney who’s helping her with her case, but she’s actually in a shelter in Mexico right now. And so, you have… That’s one story of thousands of stories like that. And so there has to be a better way. We are one of the wealthiest countries. We have so many creative, caring people in this country that I think together we can come up with some solutions that extend humanity to each and every person who’s looking to us for help.

“We are one of the wealthiest countries. We have so many creative, caring people in this country that I think together we can come up with some solutions that extend humanity to each and every person who’s looking to us for help.” Tess Clarke

And we have a long legacy as America of opening our doors to refugees and to asylum seekers in taking these people in as our own. And I think Arturo might have shared some of that about his story and how people made him feel so welcome and so a part of their community and so loved. And I think we’re still those same people. I think some of this has just been politicized that we feel like we have to pick a side. And I would say there’s a third way here. There is no side to be picked, but the human side. These are people. These are image-bearers. They are mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and children, and, surely, especially as people of faith, our faith would compel us to move towards them in the Mago day and come up with solutions that treat them with dignity.

Jessica: So, what can we do as the common person? You are such an incredible advocate and you are giving your life to this. What can the everyday citizen do for our people stuck on the border?

Tess: That’s such a great question. I mean, I think your everyday person sometimes… and I know before I got into this work advocacy wise, politically, I kind of forgot that my representatives work for me. We elect them, they hold office because we chose them. We chose for them to be there. And so, it can be intimidating, but sending an email, making a phone call letting them know that you care about this. Since I got into this work, I’ve talked with several staffers at an office and they said, "If we get 10 phone calls about a single issue, that goes on the senator or Congressman or Congresswoman radar because that shows that people care about this issue." I think sometimes we don’t realize how disengaged we often are from the day to day of policy and politics, right? We’re going on with our lives. We’re all working, raising our kids, trying to get things done, juggling a million things.

And so, making that, you know, 15, 20-second phone call to your representative and say, "Hi, I’m Jessica. I live in Austin, Texas. I am worried about what’s happening at our border. I have heard the dehumanizing rhetoric. I have read about children being held in cages. How is the senator addressing this? Where do they stand on this issue? I am an evangelical woman, or I am a Catholic woman or man or what…" Some of those identifiers to let your representative know that this matters to you will put this on their radar. And sometimes it can be that simple, a 30-second phone call.

There’s a lot of great organizations working on the border. And so, I think even doing some research, and Jessica, may be in your show notes, we can do this. But giving people some places where they can directly go and learn about what’s happening and make donations. There are groups who are providing clean water to people on the border who are writing education to children who are stuck on the other side in Mexico. Those are some real ways that we can come alongside people by helping provide those resources. But I would say the other thing that people can do, and you do not have to be an expert on this in any way, shape, or form. But when you can say, "Hey, here’s a human story I read. Here’s something that I heard. Here’s something I’m wrestling with. And you can invite people in your circle to think about this and wrestle through it with you, you begin to change the conversation. You begin to change the culture. And that’s really what we need. We need a culture shift to a more welcoming approach to immigration.

“We need a culture shift to a more welcoming approach to immigration.” Tess Clarke

Jessica: In this time where the world is shifting all around us, where it feels often like we are disoriented, it’s important to exercise our agency. So, I hope that today, or this week, you can do one thing to exercise your agency in standing up for the Other. The refugee or immigrant in your midst or the refugee or immigrant who is on the border needing you to maybe make just one phone call.

Thank you so much for tuning in to today’s Going Scared podcast episode. I would love for you to review and rate the show so that more people can discover us

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.